Prisoners look upon the summer months in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) with dread and trepidation. For one is acutely aware that one may not survive another summer. Many do not. The deadly heat in Texas prisons is killing us.

It is not uncommon for the temperature to reach as high as 140° Fahrenheit in the inmate living/housing areas during the summer months. And although the TDCJ takes precautionary measures to reduce heat-related illnesses, as evidenced by continual inmate deaths, it is not enough.

On the Price Daniel Unit, one 10-gallon water cooler is placed in our living area under lock and key during the summer months. This 10-gallon cooler must provide cold water for 84 inmates, which it never does. An inmate can expect to get one 8 oz. cup of water every four hours. Moreover, ice for the cooler is only provided twice a day and the ice frequently melts before the hottest part of the day.

Why not put cold water fountains in the inmate living areas so that inmates are assured a drink of cold water when they need it the most?

The TDCJ also provides an extra fan for every dayroom, but once the temperature exceeds 95° Fahrenheit, the fans simply circulate hot air. They do absolutely nothing to reduce the temperature. It routinely feels as if one’s sitting in a convection oven being slowly cooked alive. There is no respite from the agony that the heat in Texas prisons inflicts. Furthermore, providing fans for the dayroom does not address the extreme temperatures in inmates’ cells. Inmates spend many hours a day in their cells. Those inmates fortunate enough to buy a fan from the prison commissary are able to get a slight breeze in their cells, while poor inmates (the majority) are defenseless in combating the heat.

I realize that there is a small, yet vocal segment of our society that feels that prisoners deserve exactly what we are currently getting. Unfortunately for them, the U.S. Constitution does not stop at the Texas border. Constitutional protections extend to prisoners as well as average citizens. And subjecting prisoners to heat-related illnesses and possible death because of abysmal conditions of confinement is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. It should not take costly litigation for prison officials and Texas politicians to take action on this issue.

Can someone please tell them that being “tough” and “dumb” on criminal justice policy is so ’90s?

STUDY on heat risks in Texas Prisons from University of Texas, Austin:  Every summer, the TDCJ subjects its prisoners to deadly temperature and humidity levels, and violates prisoners’ human and constitutional rights and their rights to health, life and dignity. Some note that many law abiding Texans do not have air conditioning in their homes. However, these individuals have the freedom and capability to escape deadly summer heat by entering air-conditioned buildings such as libraries or movie theaters. They can take showers and drink water as many times as they want. TDCJ inmates, on the other hand, spend much of their time locked in enclosed concrete and metal structures, where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees during the summer months.

As more Texans come into contact with our criminal justice system as a result of our mass incarceration policies, attitudes are changing on this issue. Texans are coming to realize that prisons are not all filled with heartless monsters (granted, there are a few here) who prey upon the public, but with average citizens who made a bad decision.

The vast majority of Texas’ inmates will one day return to their communities. [According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics , Texas released around 82-thousand inmates in 2012 and 74-thousand in 2013.]

If the general public will dig a little deeper than the surface on this issue, they will see that race and class play a huge part in who ends up in prison. When I look around this prison, I do not see many wealthy individuals from the upper echelon of our society – what I see are poor, uneducated black and brown faces who never had a realistic opportunity at becoming successful. Coming to prison was fully expected of them as a rite of passage in their communities. It is sad but very true.

Recently, one Texas senator asserted that, “Texans don’t want air-conditioned prisons.” Really? Do Texans want TDCJ’s swine in air-conditioned facilities while the inmates charged to their care die because of the extreme heat? I wonder if the esteemed senator asked his minority-majority constituents about that. Many of those black and brown folks in his district have a relative or loved one in the Texas prison system. And they view this issue through an entirely different lens than those who rail against the “gummint” while sippin’ sweat tea.

It is hard to be callous towards prisoners’ rights when it is your son, daughter, husband, wife, mother, father, or friend sitting in a sweltering Texas prison. Texans are looking for true leadership on this issue, not political posturing.

Ultimately, if you can look past the numbers affixed to our names and the white clothing that we wear on a daily basis, what you will find is a fellow human being who is stumbling towards the light, just like you.

Benny Hernandez completed his 10 year sentence in Texas for Robbery and has been released. He is thriving as a criminal justice advocate and is applying to graduate school.  

Benny Hernandez #1752271

Coffield Unit

2661 FM 2054

Tennessee Colony, TX 75884